It is hard to hear the vague description of The Club without thinking of the classic sitcom Father Ted. After all, both revolve around a group of isolated clerics in a remote location looked after by a highly positive housekeeper. If you told someone that there was a senile member who had no idea of his surroundings, they’d swear blind you were referring to the inhabitants of Craggy Island. But to quote Father Ted Crilly himself, ‘Forget about them fellas, Dougal!’ If anything, Pablo Larraín’s drama has far more in common with Brendan Gleeson starrer Calvary but it is its own beast, and a gloriously intelligent one at that.
In a sleepy coastal town in Chile, a group of men live in a home with a house keeper. They own a greyhound which they enter into races. The men are all priests, the housekeeper a nun. All have sins that have left them in exile. When a new member enters their community, a shocking event puts them under scrutiny of Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso) and threatens their apparently tranquil existence.
The film has been labelled as a ‘paedophile priest film’ which is slightly inaccurate (as is the claim that it is a black comedy, though there is bleak humour to be found). Paedophilia is a subject the film tackles unflinchingly, with an early scene involving the tragic Sandokan (Roberto Farías) detailing his experiences at the hands of clerics is almost unbearable to watch. But Larraín’s focus is wider than that, touching upon other scandals the Catholic Church has been involved including complicity with military dictatorships and procuring children for sale. This is isn’t crude agitprop to bash the Church. Like the best storytelling, Larraín is not interested in hectoring, lecturing or sermonising as to the ills of the Church and how it should remedy itself. He is interested in the human impact of secrecy, repression and immunity.
The script, co-written by Larraín with Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos, creates ambiguous, multi-faceted characters. The performers all tackle their parts with understated brilliance. Worthy of special mention are Antonia Zegers as Sister Mónica suggesting both unlimited benevolence and unknowable evil, Larraín regular, Alfredo Castro’s Father Vidal, cutting a forlorn, wounded and compassionate figure and as the proxy figure for a newer, more modernising church, Marcelo Alonso investing Garcia with a moral certainty that is subtly stripped away. Perhaps most remarkable is Roberto Farías as the victim of the horrific sexual abuse who struggles to come to terms with his past.
Sergio Armstrong’s washed out, grainy cinematography visualising the sense of haunting that plagues the characters and the soundtrack, which mixes diegetic choral singing by the padres and dissonant chords, all add to the sense of unease and tension. It all builds towards a conclusion that is laudable for its suggestion that redemption is possible if compromise is reached. The kind of film that, once seen, will remain in the mind for days, weeks, years to come, The Club is a subtly towering achievement that cements Larraín’s reputation amongst the elite of world cinema.
The Club screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2015 ahead of a UK release on 25th March 2016